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I have a special place in my heart for toys and children’s books. They were an important part of my childhood and a huge influence on my latest project.

I created ‘The Belly Button,’ an interactive children’s book and set of wireless toys that allows curious children to bring the story to life in their own bedroom. The reader—or child being read to—can make parts of the story go beyond the page. The child wears a toy button on their belly that when pressed, activates strange things to occur in their own room.

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The project is based around a children’s book I wrote and illustrated. A typical Seussian scenario, one day a baby wakes with a button where her navel should be. Her obviously worried parents are compelled to press it. When the lights flicker in the book (press the button), a lamp flickers in the room. When the house shakes in the story (press the button), actual toys get knocked off of the shelves. When an elephant zips along in an airplane (press the button), elephant and jet sound effects are triggered.

The physical book is filled with sensors and knows what page it is on. Wirelessly, it transmits this information to the button the child is holding. If something is supposed to happen on that particular page, the button begins to glow prompting the child to press it. When pressed, the corresponding wireless toy (that has been hidden somewhere in the child’s room) is activated. When the book isn’t being read, the toys are just ordinary toys, but during story time they come alive.

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I’m an uncle to some amazing kids, I’m also lucky enough to know some very understanding parents. So I had plenty of children to user test ‘The Belly Button’ on.

Typically, I find user testing a little stressful, you see your project through fresh eyes and see glaring problems or design flaws. I figured this round was going to be a bit rougher, you don’t know what you’re going to get with kids. Children were going to be experiencing my project for the first time, I was worried they wouldn’t “get it” or worse they wouldn’t like it.

It turns out my favorite part of the entire project was testing it out on the kids. Children are the best at immediate and truthful feedback. There is no filter and they care little about sparing your fragile ego. You know when they’re engaged and when you lose them. You learn what you got right and what you got so very wrong. And there was nothing sweeter than when a kid said “let’s read it again.”

Of all the things I learned from the kids, the most unexpected was the new sense of drive I felt to complete the project. Now more than ever I want ‘The Belly Button’ to become a reality. I can’t wait until the book and toys are up on shelves and kids and parents can get their own.

‘The Belly Button’ is currently still in the prototype phase and looking for a publisher.

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Ben Light

Ben Light

Ben Light is a New York based maker, designer, and Cash Cab contestant. Ben’s work has appeared in the Museum of Arts and Design, the MoMA Design Store, and on the shelves at Crate & Barrel. He earned a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Lehigh University and a Masters from NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP).

Ben may love his lathe, just a little too much.


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